The Obama Administration made yet another end run around Congress last week—this time, to gut the successful welfare reform law of 1996. If this is allowed to stand, it will mean rewinding years of progress that lifted millions out of poverty.

Before the 1996 reform, welfare was a one-way handout: Government mailed checks to recipients who did nothing in return. The new program the reform law established, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), changed all that. It required able-bodied welfare recipients to work, prepare for work, or at least look for work as a condition of receiving aid. Welfare reform turned “welfare” into “workfare.”

At the time, liberals denounced the new law and predicted dire consequences for America’s needy. They said the reform would do “serious injury to American children” and “substantially increase poverty and destitution.”

There was “absolutely no evidence that this radical idea has even the slightest chance of success,” they said, crying that “No piece of legislation in U.S. history has increased the severity of poverty so sharply.”

In reality, the exact opposite turned out to be true.

After reform, the welfare caseload promptly dropped by 50 percent. As the caseload plummeted, employment and earnings among recipients experienced an unprecedented surge upward. As Heritage’s Robert Rector reported:

As welfare dependence fell and employment increased, child poverty among the affected groups fell dramatically. For a quarter-century before the reform, poverty among black children and single mothers had remained frozen at high levels. Immediately after the reform, poverty for both groups experienced dramatic and unprecedented drops, quickly reaching all-time lows.

Still, the left fought the work requirements. But after legislative attempts to do away with them failed over the years, the Obama Administration decided to rescind the reforms without Congressional approval. This Administration has had no problem acting in an imperial way, rewriting law on its own, whether its new dictates are legal or not. In fact, Heritage legal scholars have determined this latest move is indeed illegal.

What did they hate so much? The reform simply reflected Americans’ willingness to help their neighbors in need, on the condition that welfare recipients do what they can to help themselves as well.

Under the law, some 40 percent of adult TANF recipients in a state were required to engage in “work activities,” defined as unsubsidized employment, subsidized employment, on-the-job training, attending high school or a GED program, vocational education, community service work, job search, or job readiness training. Participation was part-time, 20 hours per week for mothers with children under six and 30 hours for mothers with older children.

In the past, state welfare bureaucrats have attempted to define “personal care activities,” “massage,” “motivational reading,” “journaling,” attending Weight Watchers, and “helping a friend or relative with household tasks” as work activities. Expect far more of this in the future as no-strings-attached handouts again displace workfare.

Instead of helping people get back on their feet—from job training to obtaining employment—welfare will now go back to locking them in a cycle of dependence on the government.

President Obama has made no secret about his plans to expand the welfare state permanently. He has increased spending on federal means-tested welfare (“means-tested” benefits are doled out according to the recipients’ income levels) by a third since taking office. And he plans to increase this even further after the current recession ends, calling for a permanent increase in annual means-tested spending from 4.5 percent to 6 percent of gross domestic product. Overall, President Obama plans to spend $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade.

The welfare-to-work provisions of the TANF law were a real bipartisan success story—which is rare in a federal government with more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income people.

At the beginning of last week, only two of these programs had active work requirements. With Obama’s latest order, the list is now down to one.

Quick Hits:

  • The number of Americans signing up for disability benefits is outpacing the number of Americans finding jobs.
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  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-un added commander of the army to his growing list of titles yesterday.
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  • Congress is asking the Obama Administration for details on how mandatory cuts to the defense budget will be applied. Heritage’s Patrick Louis Knudsen looks at the damage these cuts are likely to do to the U.S. military.